Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day 136: The Wichita Lineman

Jimmy Webb is a great songwriter, also a performer these days, but primarily known (or not-known as the case may be) for his writing. I give you three examples of his prowess as evidence to support my case: By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Galveston and Wichita Lineman, all three made most famous by that rhinestone cowboy of a singer, Glenn Campbell.

By The Time I Get to Phoenix tells a simple tale of a man leaving a woman, presumably a woman he loves and gives the impression of how he should have made the decision before. It's a deceptively simple lyric, explaining, even maybe fantasising, about how he's going to write a note, leave the note where his lover can find it and then what he imagines her reactions and responses will be to the note.

By the time I get to Phoenix, she'll be rising
She'll find the note I left hangin on her door
She'll laugh when she reads the part that says I'm leavin'
'Cause I've left that girl so many times before.

Does the tense that this verse and song is written in imply that this is something that he is thinking of doing, or is it maybe that he's already doing it and is on the road from wherever they live, heading to Phoenix? It's obvious that this is something he's tried to do before, is it not?

I have a seven minute version of this song by the late Isaac Hayes, who "soulfully" talks his way through a whole two or three minute preamble about a young man, raised in Tennessee who moved out to the West Coast, married a young woman who he could see no wrong in. Isaac continues to tell us that this young woman took the young man for granted and misinterpreted his kindness for weakness One day he came home from work, sick, and found her with another man, she defending herself by accusing him of doing the same, which Isaac tells us he wasn't. The young wife assures her husband that she'll straighten up and fly right but she never does and he just catches her again and again in the same compromising position Eventually he does leave, and leave at 3.30 in the morning, I guess to make sense of the line about her rising by the time he makes Phoenix. Jimmy Webb was living in LA when he wrote this song in 1965, but it's a sort of circuitous way to head to an eventual destination of Oklahoma? LA to Oklahoma is Route 40 (the old Route 66), going via Phoenix makes little sense?

By the time I make Albuquerque she'll be working
She'll probably stop at lunch and give me a call
But she'll just hear the phone just keep on ringin'
Off the wall, that's all

Jimmy Webb, himself, says that it's a song about something that he kind of wished he'd done rather than something he actually did, which makes more sense of the context. Strangely enough, I once spent a night in Albuquerque, before catching a flight the next morning, to San Francisco, via Phoenix. Why I was in New Mexico - and this is going back to 1990 - was because I'd embarked on research for a documentary I was intent on making called 'Last Train for the Coast', following Route 66 across the USA, branching off to visit towns and locations made famous in songs that I'd grown up with: Do You Know The Way To San Jose, 24 Hours From Tulsa, If You're Going To San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), Indiana Wants me (Lord I Can't Go Back There).

By the time I make Oklahoma she'll be sleepin'
She'll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she'll cry just to think I'd really leave her
Tho' time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn't know I would really go

Glenn Campbell's version of this song is the most well-known, charting around the world and winning him Grammy Awards, but it's long been considered a standard and covered by just about everyone. Frank Sinatra described the song as "the greatest torch song ever written".

Day #136 Tip for the Day: Simplicity please...if you can
I'd love to able to write film scripts the way Jimmy Webb writes songs, or at least the way that he wrote his finest songs when he was at the top of his game. I often fear that most of my screenplays are more like one of Jimmy's more fantastical and obscure compositions, the extraordinarily weird and impenetrable MacArthur Park; need I remind you:

"Someone left a cake out in the rain..."

Jimmy Webb writes songs with incredibly simple narratives/stories that in many ways are all-but consigned to history now and which at the time of their composition and release were often considered out of synch with the contemporary music of the day. I haven't had time here to talk of Galveston, a song which most people have mythologised as being about a soldier in the Vietnam War, when in fact it was about the Spanish-American War of the late 1800's, or the iconic Wichita Lineman.

Wichita Lineman has a lyric that "describes the longing that a lonely telephone or electric power lineman feels for an absent lover who he can imagine her hears 'singing in the wire' that he is working on", a song cited by many as their favourite song of all time. If you can track down the album Ten Easy Pieces, on which Jimmy Webb performs this and his other greatest songs alone at the piano, then do so, I urge you.

Writer Hans Hofmann says this: "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." This one of the hardest tasks confronting the writer; to weed out the superfluous and the extraneous and in each of the three songs (and many more) that Jimmy Webb has written, but especially those three, he has worked his craft to give us three simple diamonds.

And I need you more than want you.
And I want you for all time.

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